Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Upright Livelihood

"Upright Livelihood" number 59 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

In the Eightfold Path, the Buddha laid out the admonition to follow upright livelihood. He said no to being a prison guard and to being a butcher and to trading in weapons.

Here I'd like to mention three aspects of Right Livelihood or living an upright life in the marketplace.
  1. Aitken Roshi discusses in this minature how this aspect of Buddhism seems to many to be 'unrealistic'. We in America live in a prison crazy society. June 2008, 2,310,984 people were in prison in America. Aitken Roshi says "It would take a massive deviation from the Eightfold Path to keep this system going." And yet, what would America look like if all these prisoners where reintroduced into their communities. What would America look like if communities were supportive and nurturing places where there was little intensive to be a criminal. To many this is just crazy talk.

  2. Serendipitously, one of Tricycle Magazine's 'Daily Dharma' emails this spoke to this very subject. Wonderful inter-being stuff from the inter-being master. Even though I am not a butcher and don't eat meat, people around me who support my practice and love me dearly do eat meat and do act as butchers. "Right livelihood
    is a collective matter." Yes indeed.

    Don't Blame the Butcher

    Right livelihood has ceased to be a purely personal matter. It is our collective karma. Suppose I am a schoolteacher and I believe that nurturing love and understanding in children is a beautiful occupation. I would object if someone were to ask me to stop teaching and become, for example, a butcher. But when I meditate on the interrelatedness of all things, I can see that the butcher is not the only person responsible for killing animals. He does his work for all of us who eat meat. We are co-responsible for his act of killing. We may think the butcher's livelihood is wrong and ours is right, but if we didn't eat meat, he wouldn't have to kill, or he would kill less. Right livelihood is a collective matter. The livelihood of each person affects us all and vice versa. The butcher's children may benefit from my teaching, while my children, because they eat meat, share some responsibility for the butcher's livelihood.

    - Thich Nhat Hanh

  3. My personal career is in Medical Imaging. Currently I provide information system support, training and managerial support to a team of hospital based radiologists and radiographers. They are doing the work of helping diagnose and care for the sick and injured in our community. Even as noble as this work feels at times, there are aspects that are less than upright. America's health care system is broke and on a more personal level, I could be always be more upright in my work. This it the day to day work of traveling on the Eightfold Path.

Any error or confusion created by my commentary on Miniatures of a Zen Master
is solely a reflection of my own delusion and ignorance. Any merit
generated by this activity is solely the result of Aitken Roshi's clear
teaching and is dedicated to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout
space and time.


  1. I love that you noticed that there is more to work than simply choosing upright work. Being ethical in the workplace is an ongoing practice. Not only do we deal with "everybody else is doing it" but also "no one will notice." LOL and then, of course, there is the "I am the superior worker" thought that tries to fill the void left by the first two thoughts I mentioned. Practice. Practice. Practice.

  2. Work, relationship and community are the practice-teachers of the lay Zen Buddhist.

    Robert Thurman said recently in a talk on the Vimulakerti Sutra that we have eternity to practice and that this is not an excuse for being lazy and putting off practice. Instead he pointed to this being an encouragement to practice perfectly right now. He has a great set of ongoing recordings of his talks at http://fyminc.typepad.com/bob_thurman_podcast/

  3. Thanks for the podcast info. I've added it to my phone's podcast list.

    By the way, since we talked about Kindle, I see you have an iPhone. Why would you not at least try a Kindle book since you can get the app for free (at least I think it's free - I have a Blackberry which has no Kindle app...yet)

  4. Yes, I have tried the Kindle application for the iPod Touch. I even bought a book to try out the service. The book I bought is Joko Beck's "Everyday Zen" which our book group is working through.

    I like it so far but there are a couple of things I don't quite like. First there are no page numbers in the Kindle version. So when someone say's "On page 34 Joko says ..." I can't find that quickly to follow along. Also it feels a little weird to pull out the Touch at the book reading. Maybe I can get over that.